Stand back, ladies. The Man is here to rescue feminism.
According to the press release (and a note on their site here), the cover was conceived after Ms.' publisher, Eleanor Smeal, and chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation board, Peg Yorkin, met Barack Obama and "he immediately offered 'I am a feminist'.”
Which is nice to hear—in fact, I wish I'd heard it from him myself, at any time during the campaign, ahem—although I'm not sure his private admission to feminist women whose support he was courting warrants the cover, particularly when there are prominent female politicians who have never been given such glowing treatment, despite being authentic feminist champions who are quite willing to publicly identify as feminist.
And would enthusiastically wear the actual shirt on their actual bodies in the actual physical world in actual reality.
That Obama has not regularly and unapologetically identified himself as a feminist makes this image problematic—as does the reality that, while Obama is clearly better on women's issues than the retrofuck lunkhead and his band of misogybag miscreants who've been leading the country the last eight years, he's not been what might fairly be deemed a leader on feminist issues.
He's (marginally) pro-choice and supports the Ledbetter Act and believes that women should have access to birth control and emergency contraception, all of which certainly speak to a feminist sensibility, but he has not been out front on major feminist issues over the past couple of years—no major statements about South Dakota's attempt to criminalize abortion, no leadership on the HHS Rule Change, on which Senators Clinton and Murray led the charge, no courageous and trailblazing redefinitions of abortion, but instead the customary Democratic rhetoric about necessary evils and "safe, legal, rare" blah blah blah.
Yet he's represented here as a superfeminist, which reinforces the same old narrative we see played out over and over again when it comes to men's participation in a "women's domain"—the women of feminism (or parenthood, or housecleaning, or rape prevention, or early childhood education, or nursing, etc.) are doing What Women Do, but the men who engage strongly in these areas are ZOMG SO SPECIAL AND BRILLIANT AND SELFLESS AND HEROIC!!!!11!
Rarely does an image so perfectly, depressingly capture this phenomenon, this reflexive tendency to over-reward men for doing what, in a just world, would be the bare fucking minimum to be considered a decent person.
Jezebel's Megan, in a post scolding dumbass feminists like yours truly for taking issue with the image, explains why the image is not merely innocuous, but cause for feminist celebration:
Mild-mannered Clark Kent has a secret, world-saving identity that he wore under his clothes — and the image is communicating the idea that, under Barack Obama's workaday clothes lies a man who believes in gender equity, promotes women to prominent positions in his Administration and is working to advance a feminist policy agenda. Yes, God forbid.I can understand why that reading is appealing; really, I can; but we mustn't misread guerrilla feminism into an image actually casting feminism as a secret identity, the latter of which risks tacitly communicating that feminism is best covertly practiced to be acceptable, to be effective, to be heroic—a message already built into every criticism of a feminist's tone, or a feminist's appearance, or a feminist's stridency, or a feminist's refusal to capitulate and be silent.
And this reading ignores that it is a privilege unique to men that a clandestine support for women's equality can be considered heroic. No one would celebrate me—nor should they—were I to wear my fervent belief in my equality and autonomy under my clothes.
There's ultimately nothing particularly feminist about an image that shoves feminism underground and reinforces male privilege.
To be clear, I don't take issue with the assessment (his or anyone else) that Obama is a feminist; if he identifies as a feminist, I'm genuinely glad—and I'm not in the business of telling someone who supports women's equality, vanguard or reluctant ally, that s/he isn't a feminist. We all want all the willing teaspooners we can get, I think.
And if the cover had been a photo of our president-elect, really wearing a t-shirt with that phrase, without the superhero reference:
—I would be writing a very different post indeed.